Posted by: sayamika, the killer bunny | 2009 January 24

What do atheists believe?

I have been spending too much time at pharyngula. There is a vast amount being said on the topic of atheists, evolutionists, Darwinists, liberals….

It seems that many religious folks want to equate atheism with religion, and appear to be trying to insult atheists in the process, which seems odd coming from a religious person. I would have thought they would want to distance themselves from the “heathen” atheists

So what do atheists believe?

The short answer: nothing.

The long answer: believe is the wrong word to describe how **atheists think.

Believe implies one is being presented with something as a fait accompli, and there is no need to examine this something.

Atheists don’t believe in god(s). They don’t not believe in them. They just have no evidence that directly supports the existence of any god, so they have no reason to think they exist.

Scripture is inadmissible as evidence, because it involves, essentially, taking somebody’s word for it. Or, if you will, taking the Word for it. Atheists like something they can replicate. There’s a reason so many people in the sciences are atheists.

Creation is not admissible as evidence, because several alternative theories exist to explain creation besides the one presented in the scriptures. Several of these theories have significantly more evidence than does a creator. This is evidence available to anyone who wants to access it.

Atheists are often portrayed as “believing in” evolution. Atheists don’t believe in evolution: we accept it as a theory, or set of theories. In theory.

In fact, it is a theory with an overwhelming amount of evidence behind it. So much that without major new discoveries pointing in a radically different direction, there is no viable alternative theory.

If these discoveries were to happen, it would seriously surprise people, but they would well be able to carry on being both scientists and atheists, because major changes in scientific theory are what makes science thrive.

Consider the idea of blood circulation: once upon a time, it was thought that blood was inside the skin, just sort of sloshing about.

Then blood vessels were discovered, and the role of the heart in circulation was considered. Then it was thought blood came from the heart and was pumped everywhere, then left the arteries and just sort of sloshed around until it got back to the veins and came back to the heart. It was only on the discovery of closed capillary beds which brought blood from the arteries through the tissues and back to the veins that the idea of blood just sloshing about under the skin was properly abandoned.

The nature of science is to look for evidence that supports or falsifies various theories with no other meanings.

The nature of the atheist is to examine the evidence and decide whether it is sufficiently compelling.

Personally, I would love to believe in a benevolent or even a wrathful supreme being who would sort out the ills of the world and protect the deserving. I just don’t have enough evidence to accept it as a viable theory.

And believe me, I have looked.

**Atheists:  by that I mean, in general, not to a man.



  1. Well, technically it’s the agnostics who believe in nothing, while atheists believe there is no god/deity/creator/whatnot. Therein lies the difference, I’m afraid. Atheism is logically just as unsupportable as theism, even if all evidence points to their being right, simply because you cannot prove god’s non-existence. But I bet you knew that already.

  2. cygielski, do you believe in Zeus? Wotan? Ba’al? No? Then you are an atheist with respect to those gods. I am an atheist with respect to Jehovah as well. Even Dawkins, out of a scale from 1 to 7, describes himself as a level 6 atheist. While intellectual honesty requires that I acknowledge the miniscule possibility of a god (though not the Abrahamic one – that one is falsifiable), this does not mean that I actually think there is any real chance of one existing. To say that makes me an agnostic greatly overstate the chances of the existence of any god. Thus, since absolute knowledge of any god’s existence is impossible, I hold the position that there are no gods with a high degree of confidence. This is as far as it can be taken for any position.

    As for the burden of proof fallacy, the onus is not on those maintaining the null hypothesis (i.e., that there are no gods) but on the claimant to provide positive evidence in support of any god(s) existence. This is just basic logic theory. Thus, the two positions are not equivalent in terms of who has the burden of proof. Since there is not one shred of evidence in support of the existence of any deity, the only rational position to maintain is the null hypothesis. Thus, I provisionally accept the position that no gods exist.

    Those two words are what separates rational atheists (not all are rational) from believers. We come to a conclusion which is supported by the available evidence. As new evidence comes in I can re-evaluate my position. Atheism need not be dogmatic (for some it is), but religion always is. That is what the Enlightenment was about. That is what free thinking is about.

    Your position that “atheism is logically just as unsupportable as theism, even if all evidence points to their being right, simply because you cannot prove god’s non-existence” is incorrect and in need of revision.

  3. Er… what shamelesslyatheist said!

  4. Just for the record, the only god I believe in is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. However, as far as I’m concerned, the onus of proof is on the proponent of a theory, even if it is negative. If what you said was true, you’d have a hard time proving the existence of just about anything – even Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” is pretty shaky stuff. This is why even though for all practical purposes I’m an atheist, whenever I’d discuss the issue seriously (which I rarely do as I’ve stopped trying to convince theists of anything) I would call myself an agnostic.

  5. I suppose you got me there in that I’m not 100% atheist, only, as I already said, insofar as there’s not enough evidence to accept any deity as a viable hypothesis.

    So it’s near enough as makes no odds.

    But for semantic purposes, an agnostic who notes that the all the evidence points to no gods.

  6. “However, as far as I’m concerned, the onus of proof is on the proponent of a theory, even if it is negative.” No. There is no symmetry in the burden of proof as regards to “X” and “not X”. Being unable to prove a negative is not a good excuse to believe in the existence of any god. But it does not mean that atheists are stuck with dogmatically maintaining that there aren’t any. Note the use of the words “provisionally accept” above. And philosophers actually do have a problem with I think therefor I am.

    “(which I rarely do as I’ve stopped trying to convince theists of anything)” I hear ya…

    “I suppose you got me there in that I’m not 100% atheist, only, as I already said, insofar as there’s not enough evidence to accept any deity as a viable hypothesis.” Not even Dawkins is 100%. But this is not a reason to discard the atheist label.

  7. Well, if you read the text to which you link carefully, you’ll see that it supports my assertion, not yours:

    “Specifically, when anyone is making a bold claim, either positive or negative, it is not someone else’s responsibility to disprove the claim, but is rather the responsibility of the person who is making the bold claim to prove it. In short, X is not proven simply because “not X” cannot be proven”

    Here you see “X” and “not X” refers to both positive and negative claims and NOT “X” to positive and “not X” to negative ones. Therefore if you claim there is no god it is upon you to prove your statement. That’s impossible to do, so all you’re left with is presenting supporting evidence. That in turn, though very convincing, isn’t entirely conclusive.
    Having said that, the same mechanism works for Baal, Apollo and the Tooth Fairy, so you’re right that in practical terms there’s no need to really sweat it.

  8. You miss the key words again: I provisionally accept that there are no gods. I do not make the claim that there are no gods, though I don’t give the Abrahamic one a snowball’s hope in hell. In fact, I think that one has been completely falsified on the basis of the attributes its believers give it. I agree that to dogmatically claim no gods violates the burden of proof issue. It’s a cheap out, but it means that I am (or try to be) open to new evidence for the positive claim if and when it comes along.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  9. Short version: I agree with you. But then, you knew that already.

    Long version: This reminds me of very lengthy, involved debates from cegep and university days. I could probably dig up some of the stuff from then to avoid having to rewrite it. But what it comes down to is, you don’t have to prove a negative, but you do have to present some sort of independently-verifiable evidence in support of a positive before you start taking that seriously.

    Not that I have anything against people who have faith. I think it’s a personal matter, and if it works for them, it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not because it helps them. So long as they leave others alone, don’t bug them, don’t hurt them, and don’t try to convert them. But therein lies the rub, of course.

    Oh, and I’ve always been in favour of worshipping the Purple People Eater, personally. 🙂

  10. I don’t see anyone atheist here coming up first with a concept of God which they are lacking proof of.

    What about God is the maker of everything?

    That is the most important concept of God before anything and everything else about God is even imagined, for Christians.

    Maker of everything, that is the concept of God in relation to anything and everything that has a beginning, like the physical universe which according to the greatest majority of astronomical physicists had a beginning.

    So, from God as maker of everything you can choose instead matter in randomness as the maker of everything.

    If you choose matter in randomness as the maker of everything, then matter in randomness is the God you must accept from logic.

    So, to be rational and intellectually honest, take your pick.

    Otherwise there is no intellectual honesty with you atheists, but all evasions and muddling up of issues.


  11. With respect, Pachomius, that makes no sense. “Matter in randomness?” That’s not where I live. And I wouldn’t define such a thing as the Abrahamic God, certainly. Or any other ones I’ve heard of for that.

    To put it another way, as someone much cleverer than I am once said: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

    I never said I was right, I just said I am an atheist, and as long as I have no evidence not best explained by naturalistic means, I am happy with my stance.

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